Everybody’s a Critic: Business Watchdogs Online
By Roberta Brody,
with Emerenciana Bravo, Sabrina Camilo, Paula Cornejo, Lori Crimaudo, Sadys R. Espitia, Matthew J. Flynn, Trevor Jones, Stephanie Jordon, Jessica Nawrocki, Russell Rokicki, Richard Tuske, and Stacy Williams
Most of us need advice at one time or another about the quality of business services or products—regardless of the information resources we have on hand or the number of social networks in which we participate. In an information overloaded world, where everyone with an opinion can create a Web site or a blog to voice it, it’s a chore to find qualified and balanced sources to rely on. As information professionals, most of us will look for one or more sources that we have already used. We’ll look for reviews or evaluations of the product or service we are considering as well as information about its manufacture or regulation.
Familiar beginning strategies include locating an organization with an interest in the product or service using indirect sources such as Gale’s Encyclopedia of Associations (available through InfoTrac, Dialog, and LexisNexis), the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org), or the Librarian’s Internet Index (http://lii.org). We could also start by seeking a direct source of specific product reviewing such as PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com) or another title from the trade press.
Sometimes our initial search raises more questions than it answers; we might discover that evaluating a particular product or service involves many issues and aspects. These issues could have already attracted the attention of a variety of interested parties, many of whom play an oversight or watchdog function. We may even find ourselves worrying about something we had not even considered significant until we encountered information presented by a business or industry watchdog or in a review.
What are the issues?
Business and industry watchdogs are commonly concerned with the larger policy and business environment in which the product or service exists. Consumer-focused watchdogs are most commonly concerned with product safety, quality, price, and the validity of the claims made for the service or product by its provider or manufacturer.
Political and policy issues that prompt “watchdog” activity include the environmental impact of business activity, equal pay, working conditions, corporate governance, executive compensation, as well as the larger issues such as prevailing economic, business, and regulatory conditions. Examples are organizations that oppose the fur industry, organizations that monitor animal testing by industry, and organizations that monitor the impact of business on the environment.
Consumer issues include, but are not limited to, product safety, food safety, mortgage and loan rates and conditions, investment advisor fraud, product performance and durability, product repair, and customer support. In addition, many federal, state, and local governmental agencies and quasi-governmental agencies perform business oversight or watchdog functions.
Just as the businesses and the industries that they monitor, consumer research and advocacy organizations and other business watchdog and oversight organizations have Web presences. Many familiar consumer organizations have well-developed Web sites that support consumer concerns about products and services, such as AARP (www.aarp.org), AAA (www.aaa.com), and Consumer Reports publisher Consumers Union (www.consumersunion.org). Many consumer organizations offer specific product and service reviews. Advocacy organizations whose business watchdog activities focus on policy and politics rather than on specific product reviews generally focus on selected issues and develop “campaigns” to support these issues. For-profit organizations also supply ratings and reviews.
Communities of Complaint
It seems as if every other blog we read is critical of some organization or entity. No one expects blogs to be evenhanded in their commentary, even when a blog enables responses and interaction from its readers. After all, many blogs are just what they claim to be—an individual’s opinion shared via the Internet. However, there are consumer communities and consumer complaint sites that offer interesting consumer-based strategies and intriguing possibilities for their future potential. Many appear to be for-profit and some even contain advertisements, which leaves the reader wondering about whether some of these sites are consumer-oriented or business-supported. Among them are the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.com), TheSqueakyWheel (www.thesqueakywheel.com), Fight Back! (www.fightback.com), Baddealings.com, and PlanetFeedback.com. These sites facilitate consumer letter writing and other consumer feedback from dissatisfied customers. Some post corporate responses to these complaints.
A look at PlanetFeedback.com in December 2006 showed postings with serious concerns (such as a consumer struggling with his credit rating) and lighthearted concerns (such as DC Comics’ changing the storyline of its Batman comics). Review sites are not limited to products. There are rating sites that review services as well. Lawyer Ratingz (http://lawyerratingz.com/index2.jsp) is an example of such a site. Both product and service review sites may contain the distillation of personal prejudices rather than the unbiased reviews. Some sites did not identify their sources of support, leading one to wonder about the sources of their reviews and complaints.
Public ‘Weapons’ and Private Concerns
It would be too hackneyed a comment to say that the greatest weapon any watchdog organization has is truth. Every organization with a point of view can present some part of the “truth.” Mechanisms that encourage disclosure, sometimes referred to as “sunshine,” may be among the best weapons that watchdogs have. In the U.S., “sunshine laws” that require open meetings enable environments where disclosure is likely. In business, it is important to keep in mind that governmental and quasi-governmental regulatory agencies have the mechanisms in place to monitor business activities and may be appointed or sanctioned by law to do so. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and equivalent state laws, designed to shed light on the operations of the government and the information that the government collects, is also useful in uncovering information about businesses that government agencies deal with or monitor.
You can find information about legislation in progress at the Library of Congress’ THOMAS Web site (http://thomas.loc.gov). State and local municipalities often have agencies that address consumer concerns, particularly those that regulate and license local businesses. Many of these municipalities have Web presences. A well-developed example of such local municipal watchdog activities is at the Web site of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (www.nyc.gov/consumers).
In addition to government and nonprofit organizations, for-profit organizations also have an interest in business wrongdoing, faulty products and services, negligence, and false claims. Most, if not all, policy and consumer concerns relative to business practices present opportunities for for-profit organizations that deal with these issues as well. For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission posts product recall announcements and product safety alerts (www.cpsc.gov). In addition to federal and local government sites that post product recalls, many nonprofit advocacy groups publish some portion of these recall lists on their Web sites. The for-profit legal publisher Nolo has a site called Recall Warnings, which also publishes product recall warnings (www.recall-warnings.com). An interesting, though off-topic, feature of this site is a list of “political recalls.”
While corporate governance issues are among the concerns monitored by governmental agencies, quasi-governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations (labor unions and investor groups), they are also monitored by law firms, publishers, and other for-profit entities. For example, The Corporate Library (www.thecorporatelibrary.com) is an independent content provider that provides information resources and products relating to corporate governance, executive compensation, and company data.
While many regulatory agencies are commonly part of federal, state, and local governments, businesses can also be regulated by quasi-governmental agencies such as independent agencies and government corporations. In addition, trade associations and private nonprofit entities may be appointed or set up to perform regulatory or oversight functions. For example, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) was created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 and is a private-sector, nonprofit corporation (www.pcaobus.org). Its function is to oversee accounting professionals who provide independent audit reports for publicly traded companies. “When Congress created the PCAOB, it gave the SEC the authority to oversee the PCAOB’s operations, to appoint or remove members, to approve the PCAOB’s budget and rules, and to entertain appeals of PCAOB.”1
While not commonly thought of in this context, organizations that create and maintain standards for business and industry fulfill a watchdog function as well. Technical researchers and librarians are well aware of this connection and often look to standards, organizations that publish standards, and standards development committees as part of their search for oversight and watchdog functions. Since locating standards can often be a complex endeavor, researchers may find a specialized search engine that searches standards to be a useful tool. NSSN (www.nssn.org), from the American National Standards Institute, provides users with “standards-related information from a wide range of developers, including organizations accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), other U.S. private sector standards bodies, government agencies and international organizations.”
Other Interested Parties
Workers, whether formally organized into unions or loosely bound in informal organizations, also have watchdog Web sites. Major unions such as the AFL-CIO (www.aflcio.org) have well-developed Web sites that support their members’ specific concerns and cover broader policy issues. Other union sites are focused on their particular industries or even, in some cases, a particular company. Some worker policy and advocacy organizations focus on particular issues relative to workers and working conditions, such as Sweatshop Watch (www.sweatshopwatch.org). Wake Up Wal-Mart is a large and dynamic advocacy and complaint Web site and active blog mounted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International that opposes the practices of Wal-Mart (http://blog.wakeupwalmart.com). Even The New York Times pays attention, mentioning it prominently in an article about the response of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the U.S., to worker protests.2
Investigative journalists have long played roles as business watchdogs and continue to do so—in the articles they write for newspapers and magazines and in their professional organizations. The magazine Mother Jones and its companion Web site (www.motherjones.com) is one of many examples of such outlets in which business-focused investigative reporting may be found. Some investigative journalists monitor business in their own media, such as Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and American Journalism Review (AJR). A CJR article by Trudy Lieberman reported on the media's acceptance and reliance on pharmaceutical companies’ named experts. She commented that news media “too often seem more interested in hype and hope than in critically appraising new drugs,” not to mention the information dispensed by the drug industry.3
Investigative journalists have educational organizations and associations focused on providing education and support, such as tip sheets. Notable organizations that support the efforts of investigative reporting include, but are not limited to, organizations that cover a broad spectrum of issues, such as Investigative Reporters and Editors (www.ire.org), and those focused on particular issues, such as The Society of Environmental Journalists (www.sej.org), whose mission is to “advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting.”
Business conditions in their own industry and the impossibility of monitoring the actions of every reporter in every news outlet has resulted in the familiar ailments of the press—bias, hype, careless reporting, as well as what is referred to as “fake news.” The term does not refer to hoaxes but rather to deliberate and successful attempts by aggressive public relations firms to step past campaigns to perform damage control and “spin” the news to reflect their point of views. They actually produce purported news videos for consumption by the news media. PR Watch, published by the Center for Media and Democracy, published a multimedia report in April 2006 that included videos created by public relations firms that were shown as television news.4
Oversight of the Overseers
Many governmental agencies as well as nongovernmental organizations that monitor business activity also perform self-monitoring functions and publish their practices as well as the results. The PCAOB, for example, which has been criticized by the business community that it oversees, has an extensive published mission of their self-oversight.
While the Government Accountability Office (formerly known as the General Accounting Office) studies how the federal government spends its money, The Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, established in 1996 after the passage of the Congressional Review Act, provides Congress with independent analyses of government agency regulations (www.thecre.com). Both of these oversight organizations provide insight into the workings of U.S. federal government watchdog organizations. In 2002, legislation was enacted that requires federal agencies to post information about complaints directed at them called the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act (No FEAR Act). Under the No FEAR Act, federal agencies are required to post summary statistical data pertaining to complaints of employment discrimination filed by employees, former employees, and applicants for employment.
There are several organizations that monitor media reporting of business behavior in the U.S., many of which may be found in a list of media monitors on the AJR Web site (www.ajr.org). Examples of such media monitors are the Committee of Concerned Journalists (www.concernedjournalists.org) and FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting; www.fair.org). Project Watchdog of the Society of Professional Journalists is designed to inform the public about how members of the media do their jobs (www.spj.org/projectwatchdog.asp). Specifically, its goal is to “educate readers and viewers about the importance of a free and ethical press.”
What about the issue of credibility when it comes to watchdog sites? Information professionals consider bias as detrimental to credibility. When content expressly passes judgment on other content, its bias detracts from credibility, or so information professionals are taught. However, this simple judgment is not as valid as it appears. In the case of watchdogs, nearly all sites imply a bias—whether it is to the consumer, an industry, a political point of view, or an ecological agenda. Therefore, the main issue here is that the agenda and/or the funding of the person or organization behind watchdog sites be disclosed. After all, if there were no agenda, what would the watchdogs be watching?